Golden State are having a bad year. When you’ve got four All-Stars, a bad year still has you at second in the conference and at 33/100 to reach the NBA Finals.
Steve Kerr handed the clipboard to his players a few games ago to instigate some refreshed performances. Again, this sort of stunt is only possible when you’re Golden State. This Warriors team is trying to engrave its name in history.
Top seed is still well within their reach – half a game, to be exact – and that’s when they have taken their foot off the gas. Any Warrior loss is a surprise in the NBA right now. The deficiencies that have seen them lose 14 games thus far are a concern.
Their depth is not the same as it was last year. The bench gives up too many points, and, in turn, piles more pressure onto the big four. Even Kevin Durant has admitted that Golden State have not been at their best, but the challenge is whether they can just flick that switch come playoff time.
How they finish this season is significant. Homecourt advantage in the conference finals is handy, though it’s finding the form that saw them lose just one playoff game last year that is more crucial. The half-hearted defence and low-percentage shots could cost the Warriors in the postseason. Getting rid of those habits is not easy.
The only team capable of punishing those mistakes are the current Western Conference leaders, Houston. The Rockets are 2-1 in the season series with the reigning champions and are riding a 13-game winning streak at the time of writing.
James Harden is going to win the MVP award. The presence of Chris Paul – who was unfortunate not to be an All-Star – should mean that Harden does not suffer from the same burnout come playoff time as we saw last year against the Spurs.
No other team in the NBA, let alone the West, has a realistic chance of winning a toe-to-toe shootout with Golden State. Sure, take away one of Durant, Draymond Green or Steph Curry and other sides might have an inkling of a chance, but right now Houston are the only team who could come out on top in a seven-game series.
All the money on the Warriors pushed the Rockets out to 4/1 to make the Finals. I like that price a lot. If Golden State and Houston continue along the pattern for this season until the conference finals, it’s as good as a coin flip.
Minnesota are third in the conference at the moment at 11 games back. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler are only fifth favourites to make the Finals at 22/1, however. Even making the playoffs can be painted as success for the Timberwolves, who have the longest active playoff drought. It’s been a great season for Tom Thibodeau, but the second round is as far as I see them going.
If you’re hunting for dark horses, it has to be San Antonio. The uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard has played a part in lengthening the odds, though recent signs are good for Leonard to return this season. The way the Spurs dispatched the Cavaliers just last weekend is testament to how good this team is without Kawhi. They are 12/1 (!) to make the Finals.
The other realistic contender, Oklahoma City Thunder, have been hit hard by the loss of Andre Robertson. The defensive specialist would have been invaluable in the playoffs. Russell Westbrook is compiling another superb season, but 16/1 is still on the short side considering Robertson’s absence and the chance of a low seeding for the Thunder.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*